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Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Rwandans mark 20th anniversary of genocide

In a sorrow-filled ceremony, world leaders gather to remember the nearly million people killed

Thousands of Rwandans gathered Monday for a somber remembrance on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when close to a million people were butchered over the course of a 100-day period while the international community stood by, largely silent.

President Paul Kagame and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon together lit a flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, which estimates that 1,000,050 Rwandans perished in three months of machete and gunfire attacks mostly aimed at the country's minority Tutsi population by extremist Hutus.

"Twenty years ago today, our country fell into deep ditches of darkness," said Rwanda's minister of foreign affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo. "Twenty years later, today, we are a country united and a nation elevated."

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwandans felt alone, she said. But now friends around the world have joined "to commemorate the rebirth of our nation," said Mushikiwabo.

Representatives from France, however, were absent after a spat with Kagame. The Rwandan president, in an interview with Jeune Afrique published Monday, condemned France and Belgium for their actions surrounding the genocide, accusing both of having done too little to save lives. He also accused France of participating in the execution of parts of the genocidal violence.

In response to the accusations, the Paris government said France's justice minister would not come to Kigali as planned. France's ambassador to Rwanda says he was then barred from the remembrance ceremonies.

Ever since the massive killing spree, the world community has been forced to acknowledge that it stood by and did nothing. The U.N. chief told a news conference he hopes to reaffirm the international community's commitment to the idea of "never again," though he said there are genocide symptoms elsewhere. Many experts say neighboring Central African Republic is at risk, as well as Syria.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who attended the ceremony, said the genocide was a "devastating reminder that nightmares seemingly beyond imagination can in fact take place."

As a survivor recounted his tale of violence, it triggered emotional reactions that required some mourners to be assisted by psychological counselors who were on standby. Bloodcurdling screams recalling the horror of seeing whole families slaughtered rang out from the crowd.

The violence Rwanda saw is nearly unimaginable. Hutu attackers burned down churches with hundreds or thousands of Tutsis inside. Machete-wielding attackers entered homes and slaughtered children and grandparents.

Hundreds of mass graves were dug across the country to bury the victims of what the government says was a long-planned killing spree that ignited after the plane of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Kagame led a Tutsi military force from neighboring Uganda into Rwanda to end the mass murders.

Kagame has won praise for pulling his country out of the worst spasm of violence the world has seen in decades. His government has advanced women's rights, economic development and health care. But critics say that progress has been marred by the government's authoritarian grip on control that has seen many government critics and opposition members killed.

Human Rights Watch, which Kigali practically views as an enemy organization, says civil and political rights in the country remain severely curtailed. It said the persistence of attacks on Rwandan government critics in exile "is striking."

As the anniversary approached, visitors began flooding the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

"After the genocide, Rwanda was really a destroyed country, destroyed society. There was this feeling of being hopeless to people," said the memorial's manager, Honore Gatera, mentioning all the orphans the genocide created, and all the citizens with physical and psychological wounds.

However, he argued, "Rwandans got to know the dangers of humanity, meaning, in a positive way, now Rwanda knows how to educate ourselves, our children, our neighbors and our friends."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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